Parallels between Legal Age 21 and Prohibition

In many ways, Legal Age 21 can be considered latter-day prohibition. It denies legal alcohol purchase and consumption to a specific group of adults who are allowed all other rights of citizenship.

Excessive, reckless use of alcohol becomes norm as a law forces drinking underground and out of public settings. In much the same way that Prohibition removed alcohol from public settings, Legal Age 21 has forced drinking underground, behind closed doors, and far away from supervised public settings. While the Anti-Saloon League sought to shutter saloons, speakeasies sprung up in their wake, serving illegal liquor and operating outside of the law. The lessons of Prohibition hold firm today: banishing drinking from one location does not eliminate it, and may even increase the amount consumed per occasion. Drinking that is not out in the open, and drinking that requires one to find a dark corner or travel to a remote location, is drinking that puts not only the drinker, but the innocent citizen at greater risk.

Disrespect for law: Both enactments created a situation where ordinary behavior was criminalized, where ordinary citizens were placed at odds with the law of the land. Anti-Prohibition organizations cited disrespect for law as their primary argument against the 18th Amendment. Prohibition criminalized normative adult behavior and in so doing, turned many upstanding citizens into lawbreakers. Further frustration came from the fact that Prohibition was not a mere statute; instead it was a Constitutional Amendment and therefore ensconced in the law of the land. By banning an entire group of young adults from engaging in a behavior that is universally understood as a symbol of adulthood, Legal Age 21 also fosters rampant violation of and disrespect for law.

Enacted on a moralistic impulse to change behavior, but frustrated ultimately by failure of law to bring about the desired change. Inherent in both enactments was a desire to not only change individual behavior, but to legislate morality. While the campaign for prohibition in the early decades of the twentieth century was arguably more emotionally charged and laden with hyperbolic statements about the evils of drink, supporters of both movements operated on a basic assumption that alcohol has only negative effects on the body and mind.

Impossibility of enforcement. Soon after Prohibition was enacted, it became clear that the resources and manpower initially allocated would come far short of eradicating, or even making much of a dent in, alcohol manufacture, purchase and consumption. Even after a doubling of funding, violations and arrests were more numerous in each passing year, leading to increasing dissatisfaction among the general public. Under Legal Age 21, only two out of every 1,000 violations results in arrest or citation. Those who call for increased enforcement of the policy need to be reminded of the embarrassingly low rate of enforcement and also to consider the costs necessary to merely double the rate. Prohibition and Legal Age 21 are both out of step with the social reality of alcohol in American society, which history has shown that no amount of enforcement can eliminate.

Creative lawbreaking . The images of Prohibition, of men and women descending into speakeasies, of inventing cocktails so as to mask the taste of homemade spirits with fruit juice and soda, of sleek wooden rum runners unloading their contraband cargo in beaches and coves are echoed clearly today in the images of binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined today by a clear set of images and a vocabulary that recalls that of Prohibition: of young people suspended above a keg, tap in mouth, feet in the air, chugging beer amidst the cheers of fellow partygoers; of games with names like Beer Pong, Kings, Flip Cup, and Beirut whose foremost purpose is to get contestants drunk as quickly as possible. In both cases, a subculture defined by creative law breaking has sprung up around a policy out of step with general societal attitudes about alcohol use.